Sabrina Shah, BA International Relations
In January, the Henry Jackson Society Student Rights Project published their annual report on “Extreme Events and Speakers” taking place on university campuses. For the third consecutive year, SOAS has been ranked first. According to the report, SOAS hosted “42 events” with either “extreme” views or with “extreme” speakers. This is four times more events than the University of Birmingham, who came in second. The report included a league table of the results found by the project as well as a list of 204 events taking place across the UK, “featuring speakers with a history of extreme or intolerant views, or representatives of extremist-linked organisations”.
The catalogue of events had a less than convincing series of justifications to legitimise the use of the label “extreme”. The report foregrounded links to people that speakers had previously been associated with, rather than the speaker themselves as holding extreme views. This brings into question the legitimacy of the categorisation of “extreme” throughout the report.
There are several things to unpack from the report. The most striking finding was that 93 percent of the events listed were focused on Islam or Muslims. Another significant issue that emerges, is that the events listed were not attended by the author or contributors to the report. Therefore, what was said at these events cannot be regarded as “extreme” or “not extreme”, regardless of the speakers or the organisations involved. There is no evidence of extreme views being shared or encouraged at any of the events. Instead, they are merely assumptions based on the past of particular speakers, or those associated with individuals and organisations considered to be “extreme” by the Henry Jackson Society. In addition, many of the events that were listed in the report had unspecified speakers but were still regarded as “extreme” enough to be published in the list because of the organisations they represented.
Simon Perfect, an academic at SOAS, argued that people may have “controversial” views, but this “doesn’t mean that it legally cannot be said”. The report tends to regard socially conservative views as evidence of a speaker’s extremism; however, Mr Perfect problematizes this labelling and its specific relation to Muslim communities and events, as listed in the report. Mr Perfect also brings attention to the stickiness of the label “extreme” on both institutions and individuals. The report from the Henry Jackson Society attaches this label of extreme to certain speakers and organisations as a warning for universities not to host them, and that if you do, you become complicit with supporting extremism. Mr Perfect argued that there was “no evidence of these speakers posing a risk of leading people into terrorism” and that the role of universities is to protect students from “terrorism” and “not extremism” under the Prevent Duty.
While universities have a legal duty to implement Prevent policies, they also have the responsibility to uphold freedom of speech.
The details of events as highlighted by the report, tread the line of infringing and suppressing the freedom of speech of university students.
It is pertinent to explore the effects of the report on the students of SOAS and students thinking of applying to study here. Dr Sai Englert, an academic in the Politics Department, discussed the potential implications of the report. Dr Englert said that the report “assumes that there is a problem at SOAS” in what the report argues is the result of an “industrial-scale failure by universities to apply their Prevent duties”. He also argued that this report “highlights the problems within the Prevent strategy”; in that “by criminalising ideas that are considered radical or dangerous, what the strategy actually does is drive them underground and makes it impossible for them to be challenged in collective environments like universities”. He suggested that we should think differently about how we challenge these issues, rather than “vilifying progressive political movements and Muslim communities”.
Link to the report
Caption: Henry Jackson Society; Extreme Speakers and Events: in the 2017-18 Academic Year; includes the Extreme Speakers University League Table (Emma Fox)